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How to shake up local politics

Washington state ballot (2010). Credit: Bob Simmons

In the wake of the dull election earlier this month, David Brewster suggested that our region is missing a party of reform, and I agree. Brewster says, “In politics you can’t beat somebody with nobody, just as you can’t elect reformers if you don’t have good candidates or some kind of compelling message.” I also agree with him there, and have a suggestion for candidates. But I don’t think regional leadership needs to come from elected officials of either party.

Instead, three unelected leaders come to mind, Maud Daudon, Joni Earl, and Tom Tierney. Daudon is well known in the local financial community and Earl has led the sometimes politically and financially challenging effort to bring light rail to the region. Tierney has been a mover at the City of Seattle and Port of Seattle and now leads the Seattle Housing Authority. These leaders have had to make things happen not win elections.

Tierney impressed me when he boldly answered an angry constituent complaining about the revitalization of Yesler Terrace by saying, “this isn’t just about your concerns, but also about all the people that will need housing in the future.” Elected officials can’t speak truth to the power of an assembly of angry neighbors without risking their office, but unelected leaders can be much more bold.

A reform leader would have to be warm, personable, very smart, and articulate, and willing to be behind the scenes rather than leading the parade. Bomb throwers need not apply. And such leaders would still able to convey a lefty sense of issues and style — more Gortex than pinstripes.

A party of reform would need someone connected, likable, and maybe even hard to convince when it comes to taking big political risks. Once those risks are assumed, though, the effort would need someone who can be calming to a nervous electorate and convincing to a political and financial community risking their respective capital. The leader would have to be more CEO and banker than non-profit executive director.

Democrats have a hard time taking on labor unions and cutting government. They can do it, but they do so at their peril. Republicans, similarly, have an obsession about limiting taxation and the role of government. Both Earl and Daudon travel comfortably in Democratic and Republican worlds, with Earl leading the regions effort to shift the paradigm on transportation away from the car. Daudon, as Brewster pointed out in his profile, has a history of working in Seattle’s single party world but also with banks and the financial markets.

Both Daudon and Tierney have a history at the Port of Seattle, an 800-pound gorilla that, despite its disappointing current set of commissioners, has been a “get ‘er done” kind of agency. The Port of Seattle is a good example of the kind of heft that will be needed to move the region forward, and, as they say, break some eggs to make the omelet.

What would be the compelling message? Amend the state Constitution! I’ve said many times that our state Constitution, written in the 19th century needs a massive rewrite for the 21st. The changes I think we need aren’t so much bipartisan as they are beneficial to constituencies often at odds with each other, like business, environmentalists, and labor. Amending the State Constitution to allow gas taxes to be used for transit, changing it so that government could lend its credit, and changing our budget based property tax system to allow for Tax Increment Financing are all great examples.

Since each of these are very wonky, complicated, and hard to explain ideas and would require a statewide campaign, a reform party would have to make a gut-level case about why betting on investments like light rail and transit oriented development or using public credit to support private projects are good ideas.

There will be honest disagreement about what a reform effort might focus on. But most people would agree that wrapping old ideas in good messaging isn’t good enough. In an era of climate change, a collapsing economy, and shrinking resources, the words of conservative Margaret Thatcher ring true: “We mustn’t flinch from the realities. It’s easy for politicians to win applause by postponing the day of reckoning. That is only self indulgence and deceit.”

Is this an elitist path forward, relying on big ideas, financing, arcane policy changes, and leadership from the establishment? Maybe. But change takes longer than the gap between elections, and our current system isn’t delivering fundamental change; rather, the system rewards politicians who make promises that can’t be kept. Maybe it’s time to try something completely different.

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